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Tuesday, May 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:54 PM

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Information in this article, originally published May 2, 2006, was corrected May 2, 2006. In a previous version of this story, the name of photographer Johsel Namkung's daughter Poki Namkung was misspelled.

Nature reframed: Photographer captures beauty in unexpected places

Seattle Times art critic

For many photographers, the act of shooting is a game of odds: The more you click, the more likely you are to turn up gold.

Johsel Namkung chose a different approach to his distilled compositions of the natural world. A musician at heart, Namkung considers each shot with the same intensity he once brought to his vocal performances. "I don't have the luxury of saying, 'May I sing three times and you choose one,' " Namkung said last week during the installation of his show at Seattle Asian Art Museum. "I take just one because I'm confident it's going to be OK."

That total commitment to each image has led to one of the quietest — and most sporadic — careers in Northwest art. When "Elegant Earth: Photographs by Johsel Namkung" opens Thursday, it will be 20 years since Namkung's last one-man exhibition in Seattle. The 21 color photographs date from 1967 to 2005, with most being exhibited for the first time. All have been newly printed with digital corrections to repair the distortions in aging color negatives.

Namkung's last Seattle Art Museum show dates back to 1978, at what was then the Modern Art Pavilion at Seattle Center. It ran concurrent with the blockbuster traveling show "Treasures of Tutankhamen," bringing fresh attention to the medium of photography. Namkung showed occasionally at Foster/White Gallery until 1986 but gave up his art photography two years later, when his wife, Mineko, became ill. He cared for her until her death in 1999.

Namkung's Zen-like attention to the moment has helped him find beauty in unexpected places. As a photographer, he bypasses the attractions most people seek out. He says, for example, that 99.9 percent of the people who go to Picture Lake shoot the reflection of Mount Shuksan on the water's surface. "I try to discover something so ordinary people don't pay attention," he said. In a nearby swirl of floating watergrass, random blades flashing white in the sunlight, Namkung captured a dynamic all-over composition with his Sinar 4x5 camera. The image, "Picture Lake, Mount Baker, WA, July 19, 1979," alludes to the visual language of Mark Tobey's calligraphic "white writing" abstractions.

Music with Tobey

Namkung, a youthful 87, is one of few remaining artists to have participated in the inner circle of Northwest art. Not long after arriving in Seattle in 1947, the Namkungs began meeting local artists: first George Tsutakawa and Paul Horiuchi, then Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan, Guy Anderson and others.

Coming up

"Elegant Earth: Photographs by Johsel Namkung," opening Thursday at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, 1400 Prospect St., Seattle. $5, $3 students, seniors. Free for members and children 12 and under. (206-654-3100 or www.seattleartmuseum.org).

Also opening Thursday:

"American Art Deco and the Seattle Art Museum." Sculptures by leading figures in America's Art Deco Movement that relate to the style of Seattle Asian Art Museum's architecture.

"Transparent Legacy: Studio Glass Gifted to SAM from the Collection of Jon and Mary Shirley." This exhibition features a selection of works from the Shirleys' collection and highlights a range of glass making techniques including blown, cast, flameworked, sandblasted and zanfrico glass by artists including Lino Tagliapietra, William Morris, Preston Singletary and Ginny Ruffner.

"Night Sounds: Nocturnal Visions of Mark Tobey and Morris Graves." 14 works from the early 1940s.

"Contemporary Art: Made in Seattle" Works selected from the collection.

The exhibitions continue 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (extended hours until 9 p.m. Thursdays), through Oct. 15, except "Made in Seattle," which ends July 23.

As a musician, Namkung was especially drawn to Tobey, the most prominent painter of the group as well as a pianist and composer. Namkung remembers many dinners together, and "musical soirees" when Tobey would accompany him as he sang Schubert and Brahms lieder.

Namkung learned to love Western classical music while growing up in Korea, where he was born in 1919. His father, a professor and theologian, had studied in the United States, and the family lived in close contact with many foreign missionaries. Namkung speaks fluent Korean, English and Japanese with a passing ability in Mandarin and Shanghai dialect. Through music, he learned to read and pronounce German and Russian.

In an essay for his exhibition catalog, Namkung describes his early passion for music and his secret vow to become a singer — not a career choice his parents approved. As a teenager he immersed himself in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, particularly Schubert lieder. At a national singing contest, with his sister as accompanist, Namkung surprised his parents by taking first prize. Finally convinced of his talent and dedication, they allowed him to enroll in the Tokyo Conservatory of Music. Four years later, Namkung recounts, he took first prize in Japan's premier music competition. An attractive fellow music student, Mineko Suematsu, appeared on stage with him, turning pages for his piano accompanist.

Journey to America

At this point Namkung's biography starts to read like a movie script. He and Suematsu fell in love, but her parents forbade her from seeing him. They thought a Korean musician was the wrong match for their Japanese daughter. What could they do but elope? Namkung's parents were living in exile in Shanghai, having fled the religious demands of Japanese military leaders in Korea. Independently, Namkung and Suematsu traveled to Shanghai and were married there in 1941.

With World War II undermining security, the couple moved to Nara, Japan. But after the fire-bombing of Osaka and Kobe, they fled to Korea. By 1946, strong anti-Japanese feelings in Korea prompted them to move again, this time to the United States. They left their two daughters with Namkung's parents in Seoul.

The Namkungs arrived in Seattle on an army transport ship in October 1947, and life began to settle down. Namkung enrolled as a graduate student in music at the University of Washington, while Mineko accepted a job teaching in the department of Far Eastern Studies. They brought their daughters, Irene and Poki, to join them, and the family was soon an established part of the local arts scene. Namkung says he often performed with the University Symphony Orchestra, as well as giving solo recitals. But he had a family, and singing German lieder was not a profitable occupation.

Studying with Ansel

Namkung took a job as a language specialist for Northwest Orient Airlines and began to study photography on the side. Soon he had the skill to work as a scientific photographer at the UW Medical School. That was his bread and butter. But in 1957, with a $500 grant from a friend, Namkung bought the best camera equipment he could find — the Sinar 4x5 he still uses — determined to use it as an artist. He studied color photography techniques in Seattle from Chao-chen Yang. For the basics of black and white, he turned to renowned California landscape photographer Ansel Adams.

"I wrote to him that I admire your work and consider you my teacher. I'd like to come down and meet with you," Namkung said. Adams kindly agreed. "A man of his stature doesn't have to accommodate anyone who comes to his door, but on the contrary he welcomed anyone and spent a great deal of time" Namkung said. Namkung spent a week working with Adams, who critiqued his work and taught him the nuances of his zone system, a way of controlling the tonal range of a negative.

Namkung translated the zone system to his work with color film.

"Photographers, especially color photographers, tend to go into copying nature, whatever there is — the more colors the better. Often my photographs are monochromatic," Namkung said. "Just about everything I do I try to get away from reality and bring out the essence of the thing or place I'm photographing."

Summer nights ...

Namkung had his first solo show at the Henry Art Gallery in 1966. He continued to show on and off in the Northwest and abroad through the next two decades, until Mineko became ill.

When she died in 1999, Namkung was devastated. His photographic work had become difficult for him, too. He wasn't able to easily haul around his 30-pound camera or make long hikes into the countryside.

But this film script has a Hollywood ending.

One evening, not long after Mineko's death, Namkung sat at a Frederika von Stade concert at Benaroya Hall, listening to Hector Berlioz's song cycle, "Les nuits d'été," one of Mineko's favorites. "When I heard this, I was tremendously moved and couldn't help but cry," he recalled. After intermission, embarrassed, he explained his emotion to the woman sitting next to him, who told him she understood. She had lost her husband years before.

Some nine months later, at the next concert season, they found themselves seated next to each other. They had music in common. Monica sang for the Seattle Symphony Chorale. "Then," Namkung remembers, "we somehow proposed to meet again. We had a first date and one thing led to another ... " He laughed.

They were married soon after.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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